Farming on Mars will be a lot harder than ‘The Martian’ made it seem

In the film The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) survives being stranded on the Red Planet by farming potatoes in Martian dirt fertilized with feces.

Future Mars astronauts could grow crops in dirt to avoid solely relying on resupply missions, and to grow a greater amount and variety of food than with hydroponics alone (SN: 11/4/11). But new lab experiments suggest that growing food on the Red Planet will be a lot more complicated than simply planting crops with poop (SN: 9/22/15).

Researchers planted lettuce and the weed Arabidopsis thaliana in three kinds of fake Mars dirt. Two were made from materials mined in Hawaii or the Mojave Desert that look like dirt on Mars. To mimic the makeup of the Martian surface even more closely, the third was made from scratch using volcanic rock, clays, salts and other chemical ingredients that NASA’s Curiosity rover has seen on the Red Planet (SN: 1/31/19). While both lettuce and A. thaliana survived in the Marslike natural soils, neither could grow in the synthetic dirt, researchers report in the upcoming Jan. 15 Icarus.

“It’s not surprising at all that as you get [dirt] that’s more and more accurate, closer to Mars, that it gets harder and harder for plants to grow in it,” says planetary scientist Kevin Cannon of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo., who helped make the synthetic Mars dirt but wasn’t involved in the new study.

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